Vaccine passports and compulsory masks could return this winter in England’s Plan B as cases soar back to 50,000 a day, with the nights drawing in and people spending more time indoors
Boris Johnson insists it’s not yet time for his Covid ‘Plan B’ in England despite rocketing cases in the UK.
Some 49,156 cases were recorded yesterday – up 16% in a week. Deaths have risen 11% to 869 in a week while weekly hospitalisations are up 7% to 5,561.
SAGE member Prof Neil Ferguson, an architect of lockdown, warned: “Coming into the winter, there may be a Plan B which needs to be implemented, which involves some rolling back of measures. But I doubt that we’ll ever get close to lockdown we were in January of this year.”
Plan A includes booster jabs for the over-50s and other vulnerable groups, offering a first dose to 12 to 15-year-olds and advice to wear masks in enclosed spaces.
But no one mentioned Plan B at today’s Cabinet meeting, and the Prime Minister told his ministers hospitalisations and deaths are “broadly flat”. “Although we face a difficult winter we have a plan in place to steer the country through this period,” the bullish Tory leader claimed.
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At the same time, however, the government has today announced kids aged 12 to 15 will be able to get their Covid vaccines from walk-in centres rather than just in school.
There are fears the rollout is too slow. As of October 10, 1.1million under-18s had received their first dose in England, out of an estimated 3.9million people aged 12 to 17.
And if the rising case numbers aren’t turned around, No10 is not ruling out Plan B. “We’ve started to see some indications that hospitalisations and death rates are increasing,” the PM’s spokesman said. “Clearly we’re keeping a very close eye on rising case rates.”
We don’t know when Plan B would be introduced – or whether it could happen before Christmas.
In the words of No10, “we would only look to use that if the pressure on the NHS was looking to become unsustainable.”
But we do know a bit about what it would involve and what factors would be used to trigger it. We also know it would apply to England, not Scotland or Wales. Here’s what you need to know.
Mandatory masks return – including in schools
Ministers axed the legal requirement to wear face coverings in crowded and enclosed spaces in July. Instead they are a ‘condition of carriage’ on some transport – a weaker set of rules.
But compulsory masks for places like shops and public transport – and fines from police – could return if the Covid situation deteriorates.
The 33-page Autumn and Winter Plan states: “If Plan B is implemented, the Government will bring back the legal requirement to wear face coverings in some settings.
“The precise settings will be decided at the time.”
Separately, schools have been handed a “contingency framework” for what to do if the virus surges, and a key plank is returning to compulsory masks in secondary classrooms.
Scotland has already done this, and announced masks will continue after October half-term.
Schools in England could also have to separate pupils back into ‘bubbles’ – though not with whole-class isolation if one child gets sick – and must maintain regular cleaning and ventilation.
AFP via Getty Images)
Mandatory vaccine passports for venues
After a string of Tory U-turns over vaccine passports, they are now firmly in reserve for Plan B – and could be activated at a week’s notice.
Currently venues are ‘encouraged’ to ask for NHS Covid passes, which allow punters to present proof of a vaccine or recent negative test, but hardly any venues are doing it.
Under Plan B, certain venues would be forced to ask punters for an NHS Covid pass – and only the vaccine part would be valid. People would no longer be able to show a negative test.
A consultation is under way about which venues would have to roll out the scheme.
But in draft plans they include all nightclubs, and other venues open after 1am with alcohol, music, and dancing. They also include:
- Indoor, crowded settings with 500 or more attendees where those attendees are likely to be in close proximity to people from other households, such as music venues or large receptions.
- Outdoor, crowded settings with 4,000 or more attendees where those attendees are likely to be in close proximity to people from other households, such as outdoor festivals.
- Any settings with 10,000 or more attendees, such as large sports and music stadia.
Working from home
Under plan B the government “would consider asking people to work from home if they can, for a limited period”.
But this is a long way from a lockdown-style order to WFH – and it looks almost like a Plan C.
That is despite government advisors pointing out it drastically reduces the numbers of people mixing in offices and on public transport.
The document states: “The Government recognises this causes more disruption and has greater immediate costs to the economy and some businesses than the other Plan B interventions, so a final decision would be made based on the data at the time.”
This is where Plan B gets even vaguer.
It says the government would ensure it “communicates clearly and urgently to the public that the level of risk has increased, and with it the need to behave more cautiously.”
It adds: “In a Plan B scenario, the Government would issue clear guidance and communications to the public and businesses, setting out the steps that they should take to manage the increased risks of the virus.”
Cases are at 50,000 a day, but we’ve not yet heard any fresh communications in recent days.
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What would trigger Plan B?
Key questions the government would ask include:
- Is the NHS in danger of being overwhelmed? This crucially isn’t just about cases – hospitalisations and deaths are more important. Key metrics include “hospital occupancy for COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 patients, intensive care unit (ICU) capacity, admissions in vaccinated individuals, and the rate of growth of admissions.”
- The link between hospitalisation and infections: The winter plan says the Government is monitoring “the ratio of cases to hospitalisations” and also “the proportion of admissions due to infections” among other factors. It also states ministers are keeping an eye on how many people over 65-years-old are catching Covid-19 or ending up in hospital.
- Vaccine efficacy and immunity: A major booster campaign for the over-50s and the most vulnerable started in September, but there are some calls for it to be stepped up. Crucial will be whether immunity across the population is waning, or whether it’s being kept strong by the booster programme.
- The impact of new variants: In recent months the threat of a new, more deadly or more infectious variant appears to have faded. But that doesn’t mean it won’t emerge in future months, and the government now has a sequencing infrastructure that will attempt to spot them as they appear.
Could it go further?
Yes. Some have warned the Plan B measures above are pretty minimal overall. In particular, if cases rise too high, you might need much stricter measures to actually bring cases down, rather than keep them stable or rising more slowly.
The Plan B document says: “While the Government expects that, with strong engagement from the public and businesses, these contingency measures should be sufficient to reverse a resurgence in autumn or winter, the nature of the virus means it is not possible to give guarantees.
“The Government remains committed to taking whatever action is necessary to protect the NHS from being overwhelmed but more harmful economic and social restrictions would only be considered as a last resort.”